Introducing Universal Horsemanship - A Training Concept
"Simplicity in Symmetry"
Training that bridges the divide of breed and discipline
So how is this different to other horsemanship training schools?
Universal means “relating to and including all members of the class or group under consideration; applicable in all cases; adapted to or adjustable to many sizes, uses or devices”.
The main focus of Universal Horsemanship is to build consistency and confidence in the use of one style of aids. I have found that a universal style of aids developed from Classical training methods works on all horses across a wide variety of disciplines. These aids are based on maintaining the basics of relaxation, straightness, suppleness and clear communication. Whereas riders who keep changing aid styles as they take different and sometime conflicting advice between different disciplines and breeds, results in mental confusion in the horse’s learning as the horse responds to inconsistent and contradictory riders’ aids between rein, seat and leg.
A Universal concept of riding is devised to make sense to any horse in any discipline. The aids are precise and applied within each horse’s individual natural physical biomechanics and mental learning processes of repetition and reward, and fundamentally develops symmetry in the horse’s way of moving.
So I am not offering yet another new “school”, but a perspective on making the best use of what we already know. For the person aspiring to a workable and rewarding relationship with a horse, whether for professional, utilitarian or pleasure purposes, the schools and philosophies around training a horse are certainly not experienced as “universal”. Rather depending on discipline (eg English, Western, European), purpose (eg dressage, reining, showing, western performance, show jumping) or breed (eg warmblood, thoroughbred, standard bred, quarterhorse, morgan) there is an abundance of training advice to help the beginner and the professional reach their aspirations. A rider reading from book to book, or attending schools and clinics with different trainers, will be challenged to pick their way through challenging and sometimes contradictory methods and tactics to train basics and fix problems. The rider’s horse will become confused as cues of leg , seat and hand seem to be asking for different responses on some days; and will become resentful when responses are rewarded one day but disciplined the next.
The Focus of Universal Horsemanship: Working with the source rather than the symptom of problems
It is important to assess and address the cause of your problems rather than just focusing on the symptom, what the horse is not doing. How often do you get caught up reacting to symptoms of problems and never really getting to resolving the cause; symptoms such as head tossing to rein contact, carrying hollow in back, swinging quarters to the inside or outside of line, running forward every time the rein contact is released, leaning down/forward on the bit and pulling, difficult to stop from any pace. Sound familiar?
An example: Certainly, one of the most common symptoms that frustrate riders is the way the horse reacts to the contact of the bit, for example a horse that carries its head high with its back hollow and resists any pressure from the bit to lower its head into a soft self-carriage. The first thing that many riders do in this situation is focus on the symptom by trying to force the horse’s head into the required position of “putting the horse onto the bit, and making it round in its frame”. Because this only treats the ‘symptom’ of the problem, the horse may hold its head in the required position while the pressure is on the bit but as soon as the pressure is released the head will go back to the incorrect position and the horse will stiffen again.
In developing the physically and mentally sound horse, it is necessary instead to assess why the ‘symptom’ (head up and tense) has occurred. Generally, the problems which ‘cause’ the ‘symptom’ (head up and tense) are located in the horse’s back and core. The rider needs to address what’s happening here rather than trying to force the head into position. Addressing the symptom then becomes a matter of, for example, doing exercises which ask the horse to stretch each side of the lumbar muscles until the horse relaxes its core which then frees up the shoulders of the horse to lift. The result will generally have the horse relaxing its head and neck carriage, and finding a comfortable self-carriage that suits its conformation. Head carriage developed in this way is able to be maintained without constant heavy pressure from the rein aids.
Why developing and correcting the rider first is so important
Developing a balanced rider position
Many trainers talk about it being necessary to teach the HORSE self-carriage, but what about RIDER self-carriage? Being able to balance in perfect harmony with the horse when riding is so important for any discipline, even for long relaxing trail-rides. Being a balanced independent rider means that your horse never has to compensate thru its balance to accommodate a rider who is not centred and self carried. However of particular concern for the training of a horse is that a rider who cannot control balance and position is inadvertently giving the horse cues the rider is not aware of. The constantly shifting seat, leg and rein positions to the horse is kind of like having sometone talk continually in your ear – after awhile you stop listening. Then when the person says something important to you – please do this – you miss it because you have tuned out of the conversation. So an unbalanced rider makes it more difficult for the horse to learn a clear and consistent set of aids that are used precisely and persistently to mean the same thing. For you the rider it fells like the horse is being difficult or naughty, while for the horse it just doesn’t understand the aids being given to it. A rider can never have easy effortless control over the responses of the horse’s body unless they have control over the actions of their own body.
Developing a seat which works in harmony with the horse’s natural movement
Once the rider understands it is essential to be independently balanced on the horse to enable precise responsiveness to aids, it is then necessary to develop a seat, or way of sitting on this horse, which automatically moves in harmony with this horse’s basic gaits. Unless the rider can move in a relaxed manner and in timing with the horse’s natural movement then they will never be able to truly influence that movement to enhance it. No matter how poorly a horse’s natural basic gaits are the rider must first be able to move with these gaits in order then to be able to assist the horse to improve its way of moving from within the gaits. Struggling against the horse’s way of moving with various tactics and gadgets is not productive. This will just cause tension in the horse against the rider and impede any progress. Instead working within the horses movement by making small minute adjustments each stride, with patient and persistent use of clear and consistent aids, will eventually develop better biomechanics in its movements, which it can then maintain without tension. This brings use to a central concept in Universal Horsemanship – clear consistent application of one style of aids in a precise and persistent manner
Conflicting aids – “Did I ask you to do that?..... Maybe I did???????
As I’ve said already a rider must be aware of when and how you’ve accidentally or deliberately communicated an aid to your horse through your leg, seat and hand. As in human relationships, miscommunication can originate from both sides of the conversation! Many articles and trainers talk about the contradiction and conflict that can happy between the leg and rein aids, with push and pull happening at the same time. Yes this is often a problem; but what about the third set of aids a rider applies through the use of their seat? Even a rider who has never learned to use their seat aids deliberately or effectively gives their horse instructions through their seat without being aware of it.
The seemingly incorrect response from the horse causes a lot of misunderstanding between horse and rider when the rider is unable to understand why they are not getting the response they want from their leg or rein aids. The rider is not aware that their seat/weight has given the horse an aid which conflicts with the rein and/or leg aid and the horse has to choose which one to answer.
A rider’s seat and weight is giving instructions to the horse at all times the rider is in the saddle whether they mean to or not. If the rider’s seat is inadvertently braced or tight when the rider wants the horse to move then the horse’s response to the forward aid will be sluggish and seem stiff or laboured, hence riders then call their horse lazy to the aids when in fact the horse is confused as to whether the rider wishes it to move or stop as the seat in its tension is restricting the horse’s movement while the rider’s leg is asking for the horse to move.
The additional confusion caused by this aid, along with the hand and leg, creates the greatest confusion for horse and rider; especially as so many riders are not trained to be sensitive to what their seat is actually doing in shifting weight or bracing. So when there is all this noisy communication is coming from the rider asking the horse for contradictory responses (eg move faster – move slower, canter – countercanter) how does the horse decide which aid to answer first. I have found that the majority of horses will always answer the aid from the rider’s seat first in times of conflict between the aids. This will happen irrespective of the breed or discipline of the horse. So while the rider may be consciously attempting to reduce the conflict between the leg and hand aids, if there is still contradiction between these aids and the seat, the horse’s response will still be less than satisfactory for the rider.
So, put together a universal approach to horsemanship starts with balanced rider - balanced seat, enabling clear and consistent, precise and persistent aids for a relationship of harmony and synchronicity between horse and rider.
Considerations for training the horse
Biomechanics relating to breed
Before you attempt to communicate to your horse to start its training, it is helpful to understand factors that may affect your horse’s learning capabilities in terms of its capacity to respond for the outcome you are hoping for. One factor is its natural biomechanic style is (relevant to its breed and conformation). This will enable you to train from your horse’s comfort zone, eg comparing quarterhorse and warmblood; comparing morgan horse and thoroughbred; omparing welsh cob pony and arab. For while I am for establishing one universal consistent communication method, the actual goal or purpose of that communication will differ.
Horse’s individual style of learning: Does your horse have a quick twitch or slow twitch style of reaction?
I maintain that there is no such thing as a lazy horse. ‘Lazy’ is a human term which is a state of mind related to motivation for physical action. It implies self reflection and choices – “will I or won’t I?“ This is not an aspect of the horse’s psychology. A horse that seems lazy and slow to react, which appears to get worse the more pressure the rider puts on the horse, may be more accurately described as being blocked or shut down. For survival, horses have developed an incredible capacity to block out discomfort to protect themselves; and they will do this when they are ridden if they are uncomfortable physically (sensing pain) or challenged mentally (disciplined no matter how they respond).
Also, often riders will decide one particular horse is ‘lazy’ in comparison to another horse they have to use less pressure to get a response to an aid or stimulant. My experience has been that there are slow twitch and fast twitch horses. This simply refers to the speed of reaction and response to a stimulus that involves sound or touch.
The slower twitch horses are very comfortable with pressure and are more likely to push into pressure than move away from it. You often find these horses are the super quiet ones which are very good for beginner and nervous riders but often don’t make high level performance horses because they are just not quick enough to react.
The quick twitch horse requires very light aids and other stimulus to invoke a response. They move very quickly off and away from pressure. Some horses do this with a calm relaxed demeanour which is fabulous to ride. Other horses that are quick twitch and move off pressure with tension and at times a little panic, are more challenging to ride. They take a very confident calm rider to show the horse how to relax in its responses.
Understanding the style of response of your horse greatly assists in developing a training and riding style that suits the individual horse. It will make the most of its strengths and improve on its weaknesses
The importance of positive learning processes and attitude
It is possible to turn evasions into positive learning exercises. A central principle is to try to not work on a system that tells the horse when it is wrong, rather let the horse know what you would prefer it to do through the use of Reward or relief of pressure.
Much has been written about the psychology of training horses through consistent use of reward for desired responses, and withdrawing rewards for unwanted responses. It is essential that at all times you are aware of what you reward and yield to. Every yield to the horse is reward for correct response. Every time you catch your horse in the paddock or ride your horse, you are teaching him/her something through your behaviour. Every release of pressure, however small, is an indication to the horse that they just did the correct thing or gave the correct response. So don’t be surprised if they repeat that reponses when you are in the same situation next time.
I am talking about simple problems that riders don’t even realise they are creating. For example, your horse jogs forward every time you ask it to walk more actively. The usual immediate reaction of most riders (because their human brain takes over) is to take the pressure off that caused the horse to jog and to then pull on the rein. Yes, the horse will generally come back to walk. But as soon as you put your aid back on to activate the walk the horse will jog again, and again the rider takes their aid off. The rider has now taught the horse to jog instead of increasing its walk, because the rider rewarded the jog by releasing the pressure of the aid.
So instead the rider should have 1. increased the rein aid to keep the horse from increasing speed; 2. increased the walk aid from the seat movement and kept the leg lightly on; 3. PUSHED the horse forward until it walked again; and 4. THEN released the pressure of all aids. A rider only needs to do this consistently a few times and the horse will learn the difference between being asked to take a bigger walk step and being asked to jog/trot. Here you are clarifying request and clarifying correct response from horse. The timing of release and reward needs to become automatic for the rider. This brings me back to my often stated point about the importance of coordinating the aids to work together towards the same correct response.
Correctly fitting equipment is like having a well tuned radio. However poorly fitting equipment will cause conflict in training and compromise the horse giving correct responses to an aid. This is more than just having a badly fitting saddle that causes pain and tension in the horse. It can also be simply having the bit too loose in the horse’s mouth. This can especially happen when using a heavy bit like an eggbutt snaffle. While this is a very soft bit if it is too loose or low in the horse’s mouth it will move a lot with the movement of the horse which creates a kind of ‘noise’ through the rein and makes it much more difficult for the horse to hear what the rider is asking thru the reins. A bit like trying to listen to a poorly tuned in radio which has a lot of static (noise). By ensuring the bit is fitted correctly an not ‘rattling’ in the horse’s mouth the rider will get much more refined response to the rein aid. The same can be said for bitless bridles and bosals, if either of these are fitted incorrectly and cause the horse to have to block out extra movement of the equipment then they will also block out the aids from the rider.
Which to train first length of stride or height of stride
I find personally that too many riders are overly concerned about the length of stride their horses have and are always looking to improve this first. Often making the mistake of simply driving the horse more forward in an effort to achieve this. If instead riders were to focus on the ability of the horse to improve the suspension and height of the horse’s stride first and develop its ability to sustain this, they would find that over time the ability of the horse to lengthen it’s stride will be markedly improved. A horse cannot train height and length at the same time, and developing length first does not improve height, but developing height first does improve length.
Developing the horse’s core
So much emphasis is placed on controlling the horses feet/legs for speed and direction and yet this is such a small proportion of the horse’s overall locomotion system. I prefer to focus more on the horse’s core and centre of gravity. If the rider can ensure that the core or the horse is relaxed, supple and yielding to all the riders aids fluidly then the rider will gain effortless control over the horses overall locomotion and be able to easily maintain the horse’s focus on what is being asked of it.
Being able to stretch a light pressure thru the rein and feel this pressure flow and almost ripple thru the horses body allows the rider to be able to assess the relaxed engagement of all the horse’s muscles and be more proactive to correct any tension in the muscles before it affects the horse’s locomotion or focus.
Copyright 2017 – Linda Shore